"Let's say you're out with a bunch of girlfriends and you want to find people who fit your profile," she explains. "You can do a search for just your area code. It's not so dangerous because you're not giving them the address to your house. Meeting people at a bar is great, but meeting people at a bar who fit your criteria is even better."
Industry experts Brooks and Spira also praise GPS-based mobile applications like Skout and Foursquare that let users find out what people are doing and where they are so they can join the party at the bar or restaurant and meet new people.
"I'm looking forward to people using Internet dating on the iPad," Brooks adds. "You can look up a profile very easily on that format. The iPhone is still a phone."
For those who want to approximate a real in-person date before spending time and money on what might very well be an awkward first date, CyberDatingExpert.com's Spira says to look to webcams.
"People are so conditioned on the first date to be disappointed that you don't look like your photo," she explains. She lists Speeddate.com or WooMe.com, both meet-via-webcam sites with younger clienteles, as success stories because their users tend to be less inhibited and quick learners of the software platform. "With video, what you see is what you get. But the older people in their 40s and 50s aren't taking the time to do videos. You're just getting them to join online dating for the first time so it's like baby steps."
Virtual sites, such as Second Life, OmniDate.com and Weopia.com, or even gaming sites, such as World of Warcraft (where romances have sometimes sparked between members of the gamers' playing guilds), are perfect for those who are "gadget oriented" but also add another layer of anonymity, Spira says — something that can be a pro or a con. She says that virtual daters should get real pictures of their suitors before getting too serious.
Blame the boom on the economy: Finances have tanked and people might have felt more alone than ever, which could explain why websites like PlentyofFish and OKCupid had a moment in 2009. Hitwise reports that visits to free dating sites like those rose 19% over the previous year.
But there's always been the notion that love shouldn't be something you have to purchase. Jeff Testerman, 28, who met his wife, Melissa, 26, on PlentyofFish.com in 2006, chose free services because "for me, spending money on [online dating] signaled the fact that I was desperate."
Spira says it's also common for online daters to be on several dating sites at once, at least one of which is free. But there might be a lot of abandoned profiles on free sites because "if you are paying $50 a month for an online dating site, you're going to pay more attention to those e-mails. It's economics."
There's also the too-good-to-be-true notion. Baker, the lovebird/ER physician's assistant, says she was skeptical of PlentyofFish because it was free and she thinks people might "prefer to pay for Match or EHarmony because it seems more legit and because it eliminates a certain crowd of people."
"You're gonna have to take the responsibility," she says. "There's gonna be some heavy sifting. That doesn't matter to me because that's true to real life too. I knew what I wanted very clearly. Andrew knew exactly what he wanted. Any dating website in my life would be trying to deal with those people and finding those guys who lined up with my goals."